How it Worked For me – Sundra Lawrence

I love Apples and Snakes callouts – the news neatly folded in my inbox, a truthful subject header – Callouts, courses and mentoring opportunities – and the unlatched thrill of hope.

A few years ago, I’d decided to take my writing practice more seriously. This included reading callouts and making an effort to apply to anything relevant. A callout by Out of Sri-Lanka, a Bloodaxe anthology looking for poetry from the Tamil diaspora arrested my attention. Despite over 70 million Tamil speakers worldwide (me not included, but that’s another story), this callout may have been seen as niche (as my partner suggested) – but it was my calling.

I had spent most of my life not thinking about my Tamil heritage, having grown up with parents who saw assimilation as a survival tool; raising two children in a foreign country (not so friendly to immigrants), and separated from family and relatives. The international Tamil diaspora swelled during the Sri-Lankan civil war. My parents spoke Tamil to each other, and English to us. They didn’t want us slowed by a mother tongue.

My mum loved and missed ‘back-home’, which she’d left at just 18 to marry my dad in an arranged marriage. I’d grown up loving and listening to her speak of her memories and a life gleaned through airmail letters soaked in Tamil from her parents and sister. Apples and Snakes’ callout felt like a call to explore my heritage, that I’d packed away in my middle name, Sundra.

My first reaction was to go back to the stories that I’d grown up with, speak to mum and record our conversations. I researched and cross-checked facts. It became an obsession, reading archives online, digging notes from dense bibliographies, absorbing novels and translations of ancient Sanskrit poetry and YouTube videos. I even started following current parliament reports, where Tamil MPs were criticising the government on mishandling the economy and country – this was over a year ago. Sadly, we’re seeing this unfold in real-time with Sri-Lanka’s near economic and political collapse.

I was haunted by this callout. Tragic and traumatic events some 40 years ago, still resonated today. The bibliocide of one of the oldest and largest libraries in Asia, the Jaffna Public Library, which happened the same year as the New Cross fire, was heart-achingly tragic. It was also interesting that the library had been founded in the same year Nazis burned books in Berlin – there was so much to document, I had to write.

And then there was the issue of how to approach such sensitive history. In true Dylan Thomas style, I lived and walked with my poems, giving them time to breathe. I told myself that there was no rush, I was writing for myself and no one else. This gave me the freedom to actually write and play with my poems.

I also made time each morning to read or listen to poetry; contemporary and older classics from my shelves, secondhand bookshops, and online resources. This helped me study the craft.  Slowly, I felt a body of work grow.

This brings me to community and support. Twenty years ago, Malika Booker and Roger Robinson founded Malika’s Poetry Kitchen.  As a young poet, I was fortunate to be part of the original group. Lockdown gave me the time and opportunity to reconnect with many of the original Kitchen writers.

With the help of Janett Plummer, I started hosting monthly sessions on zoom. Malika’s Kitchen Alumni were connecting from around the globe. Talented writers like Anjan Saha and Mervyn Seivwright, Be Manzini and Patricia Foster encouraged and helped critique the work – I felt that I was building something special.  I also buddied with Be Manzini, and we critiqued each others’ poems every day for a month. This was in preparation for the James Berry Prize, another Apples & Snakes callout.

I also signed up for Cath Drake’s monthly feedback sessions – Poetry Verandah – which introduced me to a new and different group of writers, most of whom are based in Australia, which helped me to sharpen my work further.

The Bloodaxe anthology accepted two of my poems, but the original callout had now spawned a body of new work. I used these poems to apply to many mentoring schemes and received many rejections.

I learnt so much about my own process by applying to schemes, they got me thinking and interrogating my practice and ambitions for my work. But it takes a lot of time and energy to apply to these schemes and my energy had ebbed. I decided to take a break from submitting.

A good friend asked if I’d seen the Aryamati Prize Callout. Run by Fly on the Wall Publishing they were looking for a body of work dedicated to themes on peace and social change. The morning of the deadline, I was in bed with a heavy cold. My friend called to check on me and asked if I’d applied.  She reminded me of the mantra that we all used: ‘the time is now!’. And so, from bed, I used her enthusiasm to send off an application.

Receiving Fly on the Wall’s ‘Congratulations’ email was surreal. After nearly 20 years, including a nine-year break, it felt incredible to receive some recognition from an independent and ethical competition and press. Fly on the Wall Press had read and loved the poems. They could see the craft and research that had gone into the pieces. I felt seen.

My chapbook Warriors is out on May 19th. The online launch will celebrate this journey, with Malika Booker, Be Manzini, Saradha Soobrayen and Anjan Saha supporting.

My advice to those reading this is to develop your practice, write for yourself, and when you’re ready go for it. The time is now!

About Sundra Lawrence

Sundra Lawrence was born and resides in north London, and is of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage.

Her work often interweaves themes of migration, and conflict and does so “with empathy and a deftness of touch”.
She has performed her work across the UK  and internationally. Her poetry and short stories have featured on national television, radio, and podcasts and international exhibitions.

In 2021, Sundra won the Aryamati Poetry Prize for poems on peace and social change. Her new book Warriors was published in May 2022 by Fly on the Wall Press.

Sundra has been a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen since 2002.

Read more about Warriors.

Connect with Sundra:

Instagram: @sundralawrence
Twitter: @sundralawrence